Thursday, February 11, 2016

When science creates ripples!

Image courtesy: Caltech
Today LIGO team unveiled what is potentially one of the greatest results in modern physics  -- first detection of gravitational waves, also called GW150914*, created when two black holes collided a good 1.3 billion years ago**! Count the number of wow-inducing words in that one sentence alone -- it (usually) does not get better than this.

It is a really big moment for both MIT and Caltech, two of the leading members of LIGO team. Being at MIT, I can almost sense the contagious enthusiasm in air. Rainer Weiss, an MIT professor, traces back the LIGO journey in this Q&A. In his email to the MIT community this morning, president L. Rafael Reif sums it up most aptly: "The discovery we celebrate today embodies the paradox of fundamental science: that it is painstaking, rigorous and slow – and electrifying, revolutionary and catalytic."

Cockeyed optimism of scientists, as John Preskill from Caltech puts it, was essential for the success of this complex, ambitious and beautiful experiment. And now there is even more reason to continue with this die-hard optimism regarding the future*** of this effort. Kip Thorne, one of the original instigators of LIGO, stated in the live webcast that Advanced LIGO is operating at only one-third of its ultimate sensitivity, so when this interferometric window into the universe is fully opened -- we should have access to 27 times mores volume of the universe and see many such events in its eventful history!

First Higgs and now gravitational waves -- woohoo science!

*Indexing the date of September 14, 2015 when LIGO detectors at Hanford and Livingston recorded the coincidence event signifying a GW signature.
** The technical details can be found in this paper by the collaboration that appeared on the Physical Review Letters website today.
*** There are plans to build a third LIGO-like gravitational wave detector in India, which should be operational by 2020.